Cameron is the son of Wilson – not Thatcher or Major

24th January, 2013 6:03 pm

In all the rune-reading that has happened since the Prime Minister’s European speech yesterday, I very few have looked back at the one data point we have – the 1975 referendum – to see what could be the long-term consequences for the governing party.

Wilson called for a referendum from the opposition benches in the run up to the 1974 election, thereby uniting his party which was badly divided on the issue of what was then called the European Economic Community.

As a result, in both general elections of that year, former standard-bearer of the Tory right, Enoch Powell, endorsed Labour, helping to pave the way for Wilson’s second term. At the time it looked like a political masterstroke.

But in the ensuing referendum, Labour cabinet members were allowed to campaign on either side. Europhiles like Roy Jenkins found that they had more in common with pro-Europeans in other parties than some on their own backbenches.

The 1975 Referendum was a short-term triumph for Wilson; as he managed to  win an election, keep the UK in Europe and his fractious party together. But the poison it left behind spread in the following decade, leaving a badly divided party even after some of its most able members had split away to form the SDP. In many ways it was the beginning of ‘the long 80s’ for Labour.

The potential parallels for Cameron are glaring.

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  • robertcp

    Cameron, like Wilson, would take winning the next General Election and then the referendum to stay in the EU. It would not also not be surprising if the Tory right, like the Labour hard left, do not accept the referendum result and wreck the Tory Party. That will, however, not be Cameron’s problem if he retires during the next Parliament.

  • brianbarder

    I’m sorry, but I don’t agree with this analysis. Until the 1975 referendum, the Labour party was almost as badly split on Europe as the Tories are now. Harold Wilson, a far shrewder tactician than Cameron, made a great parade of “renegotiating” the terms of UK membership of the EEC and submitted the results (which in reality were not substantial) to a referendum, calculating correctly that there would be a sizeable majority for staying in on the “new” terms. The majority of 2 to 1 for remaining in the EEC enabled, or at any rate impelled, the principal Labour Eurosceptics to announce that they accepted the democratic verdict of the electorate and that they would no longer campaign for British withdrawal from the EEC. Wilson had removed thie whole toxic issue from its divisive impact on his party and indeed from UK politics for the next several years — a remarkable achievement. It was only after he had ceased to lead the party that his successor, Michael Foot, revived the issue by committing the party, now in opposition, to withdrawal from the EEC. It was this (among other things such as Foot’s commitment to unilateral nuclear disarmament) that helped to precipitate the later schism in the party when the Gang of Four split off to form the Social Democratic Party and kept Labour out of office for the best part of a generation. If Wilson’s health had held out and he had continued to lead the party, or indeed if Denis Healey had succeeded Wilson instead of Foot, it’s inconceivable that either would have allowed Wilson’s inspired solution to the European problem to unravel.

    This is not of course meant to imply that Cameron’s attempt to replicate Wilson’s master-stroke by promising an in-or-out referendum on Europe in five years’ time has any realistic chance of succeeding. Wilson was confident of getting the “right” result from his referendum: Cameron can’t possibly begin to guess what the result of a referendum in 2018 is likely to be, especially when there are bound to be radical and totally unforeseeable changes in the EU between now and then. I have commented on the Cameron strategy and its differences from Wilson’s more fully at

    • postageincluded

      You seem to have airbrushed Jim Callaghan out of history, Brian. Foot was his successor, not Wilson’s. As I remember it Foot only took the leadership as a “compromise candidate”. The party was already split, but Europe was not the primary reason for the split, it was deeper and more ideological than that. And this ideological split both predated Labour’s defeat in 79 and was the cause of it.
      Like Cameron, Callaghan was a minority PM, and large sections of his party resented making compromises. The chaotic Labour campaign of 79 and Labour’s wilderness years were the result. Cameron may think he’s doing a Wilson, but he looks much more like Callaghan to me.

      • brianbarder

        Quite right: I apologise for overlooking Callaghan’s leadership. No excuses, but the reason for the oversight may have been that Callaghan, as far as I can remember, did nothing to upset the settlement of the European issue achieved by Wilson’s referendum. The rest of what you say strongly supports my basic point, namely that Wilson’s referendum and the resulting suspension of hostilities over Europe were in no way responsible for the subsequent defection of the Gang of Four, the creation of the SDP and Labour’s years in the wilderness — as asserted in Dan Elton’s post.

        I’m not sure that I see any analogy between Cameron and Callaghan, though: Cameron is systematically making matters far worse than they were before, and worse than they need to be, over Europe, whereas Callaghan was I think essentially neutral in his impact on that issue, wasn’t he?

        • postageincluded

          True, the EEC issue was temporarily neutralised by the Wilson referendum. But look at the Callaghan government in broader terms though, and there are strong parallels with the present – economic calamity, pact with the Liberals, rise of Scottish Nationalism etc. What Cameron is trying to do with the referendum now is the equivalent of Callaghan trying to solve his problems with the TUs by promising a referendum on TU reform in 5 years time after the next election. A bit of a long shot.

  • MonkeyBot5000

    The 1975 Referendum was a short-term triumph for Wilson; as he managed
    to win an election, keep the UK in Europe and his fractious party

    I was born in 1977, why am I not allowed to vote on this issue?

  • MonkeyBot5000

    I’ve seen more relevant debate here than I’ve seen here.

  • Daniel Speight

    But the poison it left behind spread in the following decade, leaving a
    badly divided party even after some of its most able members had split
    away to form the SDP. In many ways it was the beginning of ‘the long
    80s’ for Labour.

    I’m not at all sure that Wilson’s European referendum had anything to do with the party problems or the SDP split later. It didn’t seem that way at the time. Dan, do you have any facts to back your assertion? Were you involved or are you just making it up as you go along?

    • AlanGiles

      I think Dan (and far too many others) forget that there always have been and always will be division of opinion on the EU between virtually every party. People like Austin Mitchell, for example, are anti EU, but he is circumspect about saying so very much these days.

      I think we have to accept that both sides hold genuine opinions, with a fervour that is a complete mystery to those amongst who are agnostic ( I think most of us regard the EU as the modern equivalent of the Curates Egg).

      As for Harold, he showed as he always did, that he was unafraid of his party and their ministers and MPs holding opposing views, because he believed in genuine democracy. I think he had little to do with what came in the 1980s: The Sun “newspaper” ‘Crisis – What Crisis?” 1979 headline, totally made up and untrue because Callaghan never said those words, and the sickeningly emotive “dead remain unburied” (which had less to do with Labour than it did the fact that 1979 was a very cold winter with heavy and prolonged frost and snow) was the starting pistol for the veneration of Mrs Thatcher and the demonisation of Labour (which became a national sport, often played by right wing Labour Mps with more gusto than the Tories – I think of the likes of the late Reg Prentice etc). Too many right wing Labourites joined in the game, and I have no doubt that had the likes of Luke Akehurst been around then, and LL and the internet had exisited, it would have been a sport they would have joined in with alacrity.

      The EU will never be an institution that is loved or hated only by one party. I have even heard the occassional LibDem voter be critical of certain aspects of it

      • “The EU will never be an institution that is loved or hated only by one
        party. I have even heard the occassional LibDem voter be critical of
        certain aspects of it”

        Whatsmore the EU is a collection of institutions and it would be impossible for anyone to support every measure.

        It would just be nice to have a normal adult political debate on the specific issues that arise, rather than an hysterical existential crisis everytime there is a ruling or judgement tabloid editors don’t like.

        • Alexwilliamz

          Would be interesting to actually list the many things that the eu is supposed to be behind alongside the things the national gvt has brought in. The eu often seems to be the scape goat for general anti-regulation feeling as if they are the only source or regulation, or the fact that if we were not part of the eu many of these regulations would still exist but instead be introduced and implemented by a national gvt. I also wonder how different life would actually be for most people if we were a federal state within in Europe rather than a nation state. I reckon probably very little difference!

    • Isn’t it undeniable the referendum was an attempt to paper over the faultlines of the 70s and early 80s Labour party which was split on the future direction of economic policy?

      The EEC debate was a platform for that split as to whether Labour would pursue a Bennite semi protectionist autarky (which would contravene the Treaty of Rome) or move to a more continental social democratic model as happened under Kinnonck.

      • It was Callaghan’s ham-fisted imposition of wage restraint that threw Labour into disarray – the EEC had subsided as a concern to be replaced rising trade union militancy and the Winter of Discontent.

        Also, like Brown, Callaghan, delayed the general election and lived to regret doing so – his “waitiing at the church” performance must be close to Kinnock’s hysterical Sheffield eruption as a piece of suicidal political theatre.

        To me, at the time, Callaghan always gave an impression of being out of his depth.

  • JoeDM

    No. See Cameron think Heath.

    The reality is that Cameron is a committed EU-phile with far more in common with Clegg than his own party.

  • uglyfatbloke

    Monkeybot5000, …you’ll never be allowed to vote on this issue. The leaders of our political class don’t like you, don’t trust you and cannot be sure that you will vote the way they want. Personally I’m in favour of EU membership, but I don’t expect to get an opportunity to vote for it.

  • Thanks for the comments. Two main criticisms are, I think, that Europe wasn’t the biggest decisive split in Labour, and that, given the time that passed between it and the SDP split, you can’t link the two. On the former, I don’t think it was the most explosive issue within Labour unlike, lets say, nuclear disarmament. But the ‘teams’ certainly lined up for the referendum – with the union-sceptic right generally campaigning for membership, and the left and union-leaning wings campaigning against (important to note that those were different things then). It was not only an argument about Europe, but also a proxy battle for wider factional disputes within the party.

    Despite the victory for the pro-membership side, the wariness that the likes of Jenkins felt towards their own party, and the oxygen it gave them in terms of not being tied to Labour as whole for the period of the campaign, can be traced through Jenkins ‘Home Thoughts from Abroad’ Dimbleby Lecture through to the formation of the SDP.

    • postageincluded

      What strikes me here is that Cameron thinks that Wilson’s manoeuvre was just a trick, and if he tries the same trick he’ll get the same result. Especially odd when you remember that he slavishly followed Tony Blair’s manoeuvres pre-2010 and failed to win a landslide.


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